Digital video was a nascent industry, and several Digitas execs had decided that this new medium required a conference-slash-showcase to show that it could one day take on -- or at least play alongside -- the broadcast and cable giants. The event wasn't designed to be a marketplace for ad time, like the Upfronts, but instead to serve as an opportunity to showcase upcoming content to the ad industry (also like the Upfronts!) and, hopefully, prompt the industry to take a closer look at the new format.
And still, it was Michael Eisner -- that titan of old media -- who made headlines.
Eisner, three years from his departure from the Walt Disney Company, was there to talk about the digital-video producer he'd launched called Vuguru. But onstage at the Digitas event, where he was being interviewed by Veoh's Dmitry Shapiro, Eisner, foreshadowing the creators-vs.-platforms debates to come, challenged the video-sharing platform's founder on the revenue actually being paid out to content creators.
In that first year, the Digitas event was just one of several similar events put on by digital agencies and creators during and around the television Upfronts. Microsoft hosted one, as did digital-video producers like Ripe Digital Entertainment and Broadband Enterprises. Still, as longtime ad journalist Mike Shields wrote in an Adweek piece (wonderfully titled "Dude, Where's My Digital Upfront?"), "The consensus holds that a formal Upfront season will never happen in the online space."
Digitas, the Publicis digital agency, was determined to prove that consensus wrong. About 100 people attended in that first year -- marketers, reporters and agency execs. Over the next few years, Digitas continued mounting the event each year to showcase creators and the digital format to agencies and brands. Big names kept coming: Al Gore one year, Demi Moore in another. In 2012, Rashida Jones sent her first tweet from the NewFront stage.
By that year, the NewFronts were well established. "Internet-Video 'NewFront' Aims to Disrupt TV Upfront," read a headline in Ad Age. The two-week series of presentations ran from April 19 to May 2 and attracted major players like AOL, Google (and its YouTube subsidiary), Hulu, Microsoft, Vevo and Yahoo.
That growth came in part because Digitas was loosening its control of the event. For that year, the NewFronts were produced by six so-called founding partners, including Digitas. The other partners made clear to the advertising holding companies that this was no longer solely the agency's show. Still, a Digitas session was a highlight; the New York Times reported that 600 people attended the agency's panel discussion.
For the next year, 2013, the Interactive Advertising Bureau assumed control. As Stephanie Sarofian, who helped found the NewFronts at Digitas, later told Digiday, "We had to turn to a Switzerland-type entity if we wanted other agencies to participate." The shift worked. Since then, the founding partners still play a role in programming the event, but things have only gotten bigger. In 2014, AOL invited 1,700 people to a rollicking NewFront at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with free booze on the ferry over from Manhattan. In 2018, the IAB added a West Coast mini-NewFronts, held in Los Angeles in the fall.
And this year's New York event -- down to just one week and held just a few weeks ago at the end of April and beginning of May -- attracted everyone from Viacom to ESPN to Condé Nast to the BBC to the New York Times. "Big Media Is Crashing the NewFronts," said a Digiday headline previewing the event -- not like Michael Eisner all those years ago, with their career-pivot start-ups but because it's now the place the big players need to be.
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